I realised the other day that my life would make perfect sense if I first assumed that some malevolent entity was trying to destroy me in the slowest and most painful way possible, raising obstacle after obstacle over the smallest things I try to do, ensuring luck never goes my way, and – if I try to evade the rain of destruction – punishing me for that defence by redoubling the attack.
Doubtless this entity is a demon from the same pit of hell that spawned my primary school teachers, some of my bosses during my working life – and, of course, a variety of people working in my field who I’ve never met, but who have been running lifetime crusades to wreck any income and success I might achieve in their territories.
Were I living in the medieval period, a world where people believed in butt-trumpets, killer rabbits riding war-snails, and that the whole world was run by a secret elite, this scenario of being haunted by a malevolent demon trying to torment me to death might even seem credible. And yes, I said butt trumpets. They were a thing, at least as far as the monks writing out the manuscripts were concerned…
Naturally – as someone brought up on the sciences – I don’t believe for a moment that any of this is true, still less co-ordinated. I just have endless bad luck. My primary school teachers weren’t demons, merely sad little humans who had lost moral compass; and the strangers in my professional field who perform like deranged psychotics in their efforts to destroy my repute and income, do so for reasons wholly to do with human nature and their own personal insecurities.
In short, there’s no need to put either an over-arching pattern to the relentless way events concatenate against what I’m trying to do, or suppose it’s co-ordinated, or to invoke any of the many mystic beliefs humanity has developed across its existence. Killer rabbits that go into battle riding snails, for instance.
But the temptation to put some kind of over-arching rationale to an ill-understood and dangerous world that one is powerless to influence – to suppose there is a plan involved – is very strong. As I understand it, humans are actually hard-wired to find such patterns. It was, if we are to believe evolutionary psychology, a survival trait. If you thought you saw a sabre-tooth tiger in the bushes and reacted, you might escape. If you mistook a few shadows for the tiger – well, no harm done. But if you missed seeing the pattern, you were probably going to be lunch. So the tendency was to hard-wire humans to see patterns, even if none existed.
That, however, is only half the story. The other is the nature of explanation, which was again well captured in the medieval period where there was wide belief in conspiratorial deceit. Nothing was as it seemed: everybody with power lied, and the world was, apparently, run by a secret elite. Exactly who this secret elite were depended on who you talked to. Some said the Illuminati, others the Knights Templar, and so on. But every time, and despite being reliant on their secrecy for survival, every one of these elites felt they had to leave blatant ‘clues’ pointing to their existence – clues that only the savvy medieval conspiracy theorist could discover and put into a pattern revealing The Truth.
If any of that sounds familar – well, human nature doesn’t change. This kind of thinking – that some pattern reveals The Truth that only a few individuals can discover – is common. And there has been suggestion that this kind of thinking may well have had a survival advantage back in the hunter-gatherer era when bands of humans numbered around 150. Today? Not so much. But it has been postulated that to imagine a simple explanation for the complexities and unknowns of the world – an explanation that whoever imagines it can understand and which gives them comfort – is a defence mechanism that humans raise in times of stress. No killer rabbits required.
Copyright © Matthew Wright 2021